What will Apple's TV look like?

I've been thinking about Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster's belief that Apple may launch an all-in-one Apple Television in the next 2-4 years. This is an interesting notion Munster has speculated on before, he even thinks Apple could make billions of dollars with such a product. It makes sense as a business concept and as a continuation of Apple's (AAPL) current strategy, but what would Apple's TV look like?

NPD today released a report exploring the opportunity inherent in the connected home, in which executive director of industry analysis, Ross Rubin, said, "The advent of the connected device is the most significant step in the evolution of consumer electronics and content since the digital revolution that began three decades ago."

He continued, "Creating new device classes and enabling older ones to connect to external digital services and content affects every aspect of their existence, including their physical form, user interface, core competencies and components needed to create them, and business models that can make or break them."

So what will Apple's attempt at securing a slice of this nascent market look like? Here's a few predictions:

[This story is from Computerworld's Apple Holic blog. Follow on Twitter or subscribe via RSS to make sure you don't miss a beat.]

It will be thin

Apple has a lot of talent. One of its talents is its ability to cram ever more electronics into ever smaller cases. That's the talent the company tried to show off with its ill-fated G4 Cube; it is the same talent you'll see in the iMac and all the company's mobile devices.

This means that should Apple make Munster's prediction happen, the company will introduce a television set that's thinner and yet more capable than any competing TV out there. Those sexy Samsung flatscreens and Sony Bravias? Apple's offering will be thinner than these.

The body could after all be manufactured using Apple's newly-licensed Liquidmetal alloy. If so you'll see Apple televisions encased most likely in a charcoal-black substance that looks a little like aluminum, but which is much stronger and much lighter. (I say charcoal-black as that's the color of the existing Apple TV).

It will be tidy

Beyond power and a signal cable for DTT, Apple's TV will be relatively cable-free, though you can anticipate it will host at least one HDMI port. Though you may not want to use it.

Apple's elegant vision means that you might abandon conventional broadcast TV. When broadcasters and Apple do eventually agree a business plan which can support it, Apple's much-speculated upon iTunes TV subscription service will offer you access to all the mainstream shows you might want to watch.

Meanwhile news and current affairs shows will increasingly be made available via video services such as YouTube, as podcasts or even via apps.

The sad reality is that ultimately conventional broadcasting as it exists today will be replaced. The consequences of this won't be pretty. The challenge will be to maintain investment in high-quality shows. This is a challenge we all share, as we all benefit from solving it correctly.

One day Apple may even find a way to get rid of the power cable, but even in the first generation this light television will be easy to hang on your wall, doubling up as a digital photo frame when not in use. Or an RSS reader. Or a screensaver. What would you like it to do? There'll be an app for it, because...

It will be smart

We're talking iPhone smart, specifically iOS smart. Just like the Apple TV iFixit tore apart last night, the Apple television will host a processor, a small hard drive (for local storage of streaming content to help avoid stutter and lag? For apps?) and will run a version of the iOS.

We know the new Apple TV runs on the same iOS 4.1 as the iPad. We know it hosts an Apple-built A4 processor and 256MB RAM. We know it contains 8GB of flash memory and that there's an empty socket which could host more memory.

The Apple TV we see today has all the hallmarks of a product waiting for incremental upgrades, and we're all now pretty convinced this includes the future capacity to run apps.

These apps will also be supported in any future Apple-branded television. You'll control them using another iOS device, or some form of lower-cost remote control (I'd like iFixit to take the remote control included in the currently-shipping remote control apart).

You'll be able to pump music, movies and video direct from any computer running iTunes or any iOS device straight through your television. Just as you will soon be able using the existing Apple TV and AirPlay.

All these features will be bundled within the future Apple television, should it appear. And while Apple may slap a premium price on the device, don't neglect that the Apple TV functions of the Apple television are worth under $99.

This means Apple has pretty good wiggle room should it decide to hit market with a low cost product to build sales fast. And before anyone says that's not the Apple way then might I point to the success of the affordable iPad?

It will be too quiet

Forgive me but I find the speakers inside most Macs are a little too quiet, and the sound degrades at maximum volumes. This is likely a subjective thing after many happy years listening to loud live music and subsequent loss of hearing, and I'm sure others will jump stoutly to defend Cupertino. Whatever. In my opinion, Apple has consistently delivered audio experiences which are satisfactory, but not great. I see no reason the company will change this. I hope it does.

The upside here is that you'll be able to pump the audio out from your Apple television to other more satisfying audio systems using AirPlay, an AirPort Express, Bluetooth (if included) or a cable. If you really want to use a cable, that is.

It won't host a TV tuner

In an attempt to avoid manufacturing different televisions for different markets, Apple may choose a lateral approach, two ideas follow:

Approach one sees Apple push its television in an 'our way or the highway' mode in which if you buy the device you are going to access all your television content only via iTunes. I don't think that notion's a market winner.

Number two sees Apple choose to manufacture just one model of Apple television, equipped with an internal USB slot.

The company then reaches a deal with one of the firms busily creating TV tuner devices for Macs (Elgato, perhaps?) under which the latter firm builds a digital TV tuner for the Apple television. That Apple has inked its own program guide from Rovi hints it may choose to develop an in house solution.

Would these be pre-installed before sale in each country, or made available as an additional purchase for people who wanted boring old broadcast television? And would Apple buy the company tasked with making these tuners?

It will host ads

No matter how you access your television programming you will experience ads, they just might be more targetted than ever before, so will either 1) annoy you less, or 2) make you feel paranoid. Take a look at Google's approach to television, Apple's iAds, or, most recently, Pandora's move to extend its own ad network from the PC and phone to BluRay players and televisions.

These ads will likely begin sparse at first, but as developers and TV show producers get into it we can expect a plethora of the things. Perhaps there will be an 'Ads Off' setting.

It will be online

Sure, we know we'll be able to get podcasts, YouTube, iTunes and other content using the Apple TV (even Netflix).

If you were listening to Steve Jobs during his September keynote you'll have heard him say consumers don't want their TV to be their computer. Fair enough -- television is a shared medium. Computing is generally a solitary one.

Somehow the way he said this reminded me of the time he said there would be no video on the iPod. Not being a full computer does not mean the Apple television won't possess some computer functions. It will be a connected device, after all.

I can imagine, for example that you will be able to set up an alert to flash a warning message on the TV screen when a message from a named person appears in your email box.

Ping support means you will be able to chat with others about what you're watching. 

It could even host a camera, ideal for those family chats when you're away from home. FaceTime in your front room. Also quite neat for home surveillance when you're on holiday. Though I'm sure some will cover the camera with tape when not in use, just in case.

I must clarify that this article is purely speculative, but what else can you imagine an iOS-powered, Apple-branded television could do?

And what would it need to be able to do to convince you to part with cold hard cash and take it home?

Signing off, here's one of the better reviews I've seen of the Apple TV.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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